A poem commonly considered to be about Plath's deceased father, “The Colossus” is addressed to an unspecified listener, who exists as a huge statue.
The speaker begins by claiming she can never put the listener back together. A variety of loud and coarse barnyard noises come from his “great lips," and she wonders if he considers himself an oracle, a “mouthpiece of the dead.” She has worked for thirty years to “dredge the silt from [his] throat,” but this activity has not made her any wiser.
The speaker climbs ladders over his massive brow like an “ant in mourning,” holding Lysol and gluepots in hopes of mending his skull-plates and clearing the white mounds of graves from his eyes. Above the speaker and statue sits a blue sky, one as if out of a Greek tragedy. She notices that her father seems all by himself here, as “pithy and historical as the Roman forum.” Once she has finished her climb, she eats her lunch on a hill of “black cypress.” The statue’s bones and hair are thrown about to the horizon-line in a wild and anarchistic manner. Not even a powerful lightning strike could create this type of disaster, she notes.
During the nights, the speaker crouches in the statue’s left ear to avoid the wind, amusing herself by counting red and plum-colored stars. The sun rises in the morning under the eave of the statue’s tongue. All of the speaker’s hours are “married to shadow,” and she no longer bothers to listen to the sound of a small boat scraping against the stones of the landing.
In this 1959 poem, which gave its title to Plath’s first published collection of poetry, she tries to grapple with the legacy and memory of her father, who died when she was eight years old. The poem is notoriously full of abstruse and complicated imagery, which leave it open to myriad interpretations, although most of them center somewhat around her father. (For this reason, it is often discussed in conjunction with “Daddy,” a later poem on the same subject.) Critics have seen echoes of incest-awe in the text, but the text hardly makes the nature of the relationship explicit. No matter what feelings one attaches to the speaker, its brilliantly evocative imagery and mood are remarkable. The speaker crouches in the ear of a giant statue that overlooks the world, a powerful, multi-layered, and disturbing image that many can relate to even if their relationship with their fathers are not quite akin to Plath's.
The title and subject of the poem allude to the ancient Greek idea of the colossus, which was a statue that represented a deceased person. The colossus was meant to evoke the individual's presence as well as his absence, thus creating a sense of the uncanny. There is a paradox inherent in its meaning, an attempt to both mourn and celebrate. The Colossus was able to speak from beyond the grave, which illustrates its mysterious, paradoxical allure.
The poem also alludes to the Colossus that stood on the island of Rhodes until it was destroyed by an earthquake; it is deemed one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. In the poem, Plath uses the colossus to represent her attempt to reconstruct the father whose absence looms so large in her psyche. By connecting her father to one of the world's great wonders, she acknowledges his power, and yet she is unable to make him speak, therefore simultaneously stressing his impotence. He cannot perform at the level that she expects, considering his greatness. She tries to “dredge the silt from [his] throat,” but all he produces for her are terrifying and ludicrous animal sounds. Her challenge, then, is to come to terms with his monumentality while accepting his limitations.
In the first few stanzas, Plath seems exasperated with her father’s monumentality, expressing her fear that she “shall never get [him] put together entirely.” Further, she is dismissive of what she perceives as smugness in his desire to be an oracle, when all he can produce is unpleasant animal noise. Considering the emotions at display here, it is unclear why she would bother to scale the statue.
However, in the last half of the poem, the speaker moves toward the position of what critic Linda K. Bundtzen calls "a worshipful supplicant" who seems totally "married to her mourning." Though she has seemingly sacrificed her own life and autonomy in an attempt to hear the statue speak, she comes to term with that sacrifice.
The poem's ending suggests, then, that the daughter is content with remaining in the colossus, even if that means she must abstain from a life elsewhere. She has given up waiting for rescue or change –" No longer do I listen for the scrape of a keel / On the blank stones of the landing" – and has instead moved back into the "cornucopia" of the father. As critic Elizabeth Bronfen explains, she is "fully fusing with this human-shaped ruin" who offers "a viable shelter from the contingencies of worldly existence." Even if her devotion to the statue means she must forfeit her individuality, it means she is free from the struggles that come with facing the world as an individual.
Bundtzen also interprets the poem through a feminist lens. She sees it as an illumination of "woman's psyche as it is shaped by a patriarchal culture." She cites Plath's many allusions - to the Oresteia and Greek tragedy - to suggest that the speaker is conflicted about having to exist in the shadow of a father figure, while remaining desperate for it to speak to her. She is unable to declare her individuality in this context, and yet cannot muster the strength to make a change. From this perspective, the poem offers a more universal critique, rather than merely exploring the author's personal past.
Other critics claim that the poem is not about Plath's real father at all, but rather about her creative father. Marjorie Dickie writes that this "suggestion [is] reinforced by the fact that the spirit of the Ouija board from which Plath and Hughes received hints of subjects for poems claimed that his family god, Kolossus, gave him most of his information. The colossus, then, may be Plath's private god of poetry, the muse which she would have to make masculine in order to worship and marry." The mouth imagery (the dredging of the silt, the oracle) supports this assertion. From this interpretation, the sense of frustration, paralysis, and defeat could be Plath feeling creatively exhausted or impotent, rather than depressed about her past.